In 1971, Franklin H. Frye was accused of stealing a $20 necklace from a woman on the street, and the court found him not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to Saint Elizabeths Hospital, where he has spent almost all of the past four decades, The Washington Times reports.
His lawyers have been trying to free him for many years. In 2005, his lawyer asserted in a motion that “Mr. Frye has recovered his sanity and no longer suffers from a mental illness as defined by law.” It wasn’t the first time he’s sought release.
So how exactly did a man accused of a petty, nonviolent crime end up spending most of his life legally committed to a mental hospital? Digging into Frye’s case, it seems to be an unfortunate combination of difficult circumstances, bad luck, and bureaucracy. Here’s what we found.
The long and winding paper trail
The director of Saint Elizabeths first recommended Frye’s unconditional release in 1973, a motion filed on Jan. 8 notes. At that time, the court instead granted Frye a conditional release, giving him permission to seek employment. Still, if all had gone well, this should have led to Frye transitioning into the community and out of the hospital on a permanent basis.
It’s not entirely clear why that conditional release, as well as others in subsequent years, always ended up with Frye back at Saint Elizabeths full-time. But the 2005 court order explains what went wrong with one such release, granted more than a decade ago:
On January 8, 2001, he was placed in the community in an Intensive Rehabilitative Residence. However, his mental condition deteriorated rapidly. He violated the home’s smoking regulations and concealed a knife in his room. Thus, he was returned to inpatient status on April 23, 2001.
In the document the judge acknowledged that Frye had been “intrusive and oppositional,” known to distort reality and struggle with hospital rules. Yet, Frye worked five days a week in the Hospital’s Work Adjustment Training Program and regularly went on trips to visit his family without incident.
The judge then ordered Frye’s conditional release into outpatient treatment, concluding that he is medicated, “mentally stable,” and “will not, in the reasonably foreseeable future, present a danger to himself or others because of mental illness.”
It’s unclear whether or exactly how that release went wrong, but it specifies that “if [the] defendant’s mental condition deteriorates, or if he violates the conditions of this release he shall be returned to inpatient care at the Hospital.”
In 2008, Frye’s lawyer again petitioned the court for his unconditional release, saying he no longer suffered from a mental illness. The most recent motion, filed on Jan. 8, was submitted after five years passed with no response from the court to the 2008 filing.
Silvana Naguib, the public defender now representing Frye, argues in the Jan. 8 motion that there is no reason for her client to remain at Saint Elizabeths:
In the early years of Mr. Frye’s hospitalization, Mr. Frye would sometimes get in fights with other patients, often over money, food, clothing, and the other hotly-desired commodities of institutional life. However, in the last decade, as Mr. Frye has aged, these conflicts have all but vanished. Now, nearing 70, Mr. Frye displays no dangerous behavior of any kind.
We reached out to Naguib for comment but have not heard back.
Frye currently has permission to leave the hospital to visit his family and attend a now-shuttered day program, but he still lives at Saint Elizabeths.
Read More: Here